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Phone-tapping, fear and threats: Why an ex-Venezuelan judge is seeking refuge in Canada

Ralenis Tovar, a former criminal judge in Venezuela, is photographed on Nov 15 2017.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

A former Venezuelan judge who says she was forced under threat to sign arrest warrants for President Nicolas Maduro's political opponents is seeking refugee protection in Canada.

In an exclusive interview with The Globe and Mail, Ralenis Tovar said she and her family fled Venezuela on July 28, claiming refugee status when they landed at Toronto's Pearson International Airport.

After more than three years of what she described as threats, stalking and a kidnapping attempt by members of the Maduro regime, Ms. Tovar said her fear peaked in June when another judge involved in the sentencing of opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez was murdered. Ms. Tovar, who claims she was once forced to sign an arrest warrant for Mr. Lopez, knew it was time to leave.

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"Nelson Moncada was found murdered and [he] was involved in Leopoldo Lopez's case too. I felt that it might be the government who, in one way or another, was trying to get rid of people who were involved in that case," Ms. Tovar said in Spanish through her counsel Victor Korsun, who translated for her.

Ms. Tovar, 47, fled with her 13-year-old daughter and husband. They are currently living in a Toronto hotel until they can move into an apartment in December. In the meantime, they are awaiting a hearing with the Immigration and Refugee Board.

The Caracas-born lawyer left behind friends, family and a 17-year career as a judge in the Venezuelan capital. She says she started to notice the judiciary losing its independence in 2009, but things intensified in 2013 when Mr. Maduro became President.

"They started issuing arrest warrants or laying charges upon people that had nothing to do with crime, but were just political actors."

On her way home from work on Feb. 12, 2014, Ms. Tovar received a series of phone calls from an unknown number. Assuming it was an inmate, she didn't answer. Then the president of Venezuela's Supreme Court phoned and told her to pick up the calls. She did and was told to head back to the office.

Ms. Tovar said the court was surrounded by the National Guard and military intelligence officers when she arrived. She was greeted by four public prosecutors, who guarded her office's door as she sat down.

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She was given a folder with three arrest warrants inside. She said she didn't recognize the first two names, but was shocked when she read the name on the third warrant: Leopoldo Lopez.

"I felt petrified because internally I knew what was the purpose of that warrant, which was to silence a political leader who was an obstacle for President Maduro," Ms. Tovar said.

Given that it was 2 a.m., Ms. Tovar asked the prosecutors if she could review the warrant the next day. She said they laughed sarcastically and told her that if she didn't sign it, she would end up like Maria Lourdes Afiuni, a Venezuelan judge who was allegedly raped in prison in 2010.

Terrified, Ms. Rovar signed Mr. Lopez's arrest warrant.

Ms. Tovar said the intimidation continued after that night: Her phones were tapped, she was followed and was forced to sign two more arrest warrants. In June 2014, she said, a group of people showed up in a black car at her daughter's school saying they were there to pick her up. When the individuals realized her daughter was taking a long time to come out of the school, they left. Ms. Tovar is convinced they were Maduro agents trying to kidnap her daughter.

Ms. Tovar resigned on July 2, 2015, and tried to open her own practice. However, she was unable to retain clients, who she says were told by judges that their cases would not succeed if she represented them.

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Running out of options in Venezuela, she attended an information session in Caracas about immigration to Canada, hosted by Mr. Korsun's immigration firm. They devised a plan for her and her family to flee to Canada. When Mr. Moncada was murdered in June, she immediately applied for Canadian visitor visas for her family and got out of Venezuela.

The Venezuelan embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment about Ms. Tovar's claims.

Since arriving in Toronto, Ms. Tovar has testified via video conference at the Organization of American States's (OAS) hearings on whether the situation in Venezuela should be referred to the International Criminal Court. Irwin Cotler, former Liberal MP and renowned international human-rights lawyer, sat on the OAS expert panel that heard Ms. Tovar's testimony on Oct. 16. He said her testimony demonstrates the "culture of fear" in Venezuela.

"The fear is pervasive and persistent and what we're seeing in Venezuela is really a culture of fear as part of a larger culture of oppression," he said.

Mr. Cotler also represents Mr. Lopez, who is now under house arrest in Venezuela. He has worked to bring Mr. Lopez's plight, as well as that of the Venezuelan people, to the attention of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Earlier this year, he helped arrange a meeting between Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Lopez's wife Lilian Tintori in Ottawa.

Venezuela's descent into political and economic crisis has accelerated since March, when Mr. Maduro attempted to strip the opposition-dominated Congress of its powers. Protesters took to the streets, demanding that Mr. Maduro step down and call new elections; at least 125 died in the protests and thousands have been wounded or jailed.

Meanwhile, the country is facing triple-digit inflation and desperate shortages of food and medicine. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has expressed concern that the turmoil in Venezuela will spark a refugee crisis in South America.

Ms. Freeland has issued numerous statements condemning the "undemocratic" actions by the Maduro regime, warning that the country is "sliding into a dictatorship." Last month, Canada sanctioned 19 Venezuelans, including Mr. Maduro, under a new Magnitsky-style law that allows the government to target human-rights abusers.

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said Victor Korsun is a lawyer. This version has been corrected.
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